Tracking affective language comprehension: Simulating and evaluating character affect in morally loaded narratives

Björn 't Hart, Marijn E. Struiksma, Anton van Boxtel, Jos J.A. van Berkum*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
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Facial electromyography research shows that corrugator supercilii ("frowning muscle") activity tracks the emotional valence of linguistic stimuli. Grounded or embodied accounts of language processing take such activity to reflect the simulation or "re-enactment" of emotion, as part of the retrieval of word meaning (e.g., of "furious") and/or of building a situation model (e.g., for "Mark is furious"). However, the same muscle also expresses our primary emotional evaluation of things we encounter. Language-driven affective simulation can easily be at odds with the reader's affective evaluation of what language describes (e.g., when we like Mark being furious). In a previous experiment ('t Hart et al., 2018) we demonstrated that neither language-driven simulation nor affective evaluation alone seem sufficient to explain the corrugator patterns that emerge during online language comprehension in these complex cases. Those results showed support for a multiple-drivers account of corrugator activity, where both simulation and evaluation processes contribute to the activation patterns observed in the corrugator. The study at hand replicates and extends these findings. With more refined control over when precisely affective information became available in a narrative, we again find results that speak against an interpretation of corrugator activity in terms of simulation or evaluation alone, and as such support the multiple-drivers account. Additional evidence suggests that the simulation driver involved reflects simulation at the level of situation model construction, rather than at the level of retrieving concepts from long-term memory. In all, by giving insights into how language-driven simulation meshes with the reader's evaluative responses during an unfolding narrative, this study contributes to the understanding of affective language comprehension.

Original languageEnglish
Article number318
Number of pages14
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • affective language
  • corrugator EMG
  • embodiment
  • emotion
  • grounded cognition
  • language processing
  • moral evaluation
  • narrative


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